People’s Republic of Desire (China/USA, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

We are slowly migrating closer to a Summer Wars-meets-Black Mirror sense of reality, where the online spheres of existence make up for the shortcomings of the physical. Connected to an interdimensional digital universe is a growing legion of aspiring net denizens by the millions; driven by the allure of stardom, or the possibilities of new relationships (platonic or otherwise), people log on to gaze into the wonders of this electronic cosmos and try to tap into the life—changing prospects it tempts them in with. Sadly, as we have seen time and time again, fame and success demands its own toll. For the citizens of People’s Republic of Desire, the price is one that those familiar with cyber-based sci-fi and fairytales know all too well.

Hao Wu’s SXSW award-winning documentary exposé of China’s eternally expansive live-streaming culture, People’s Republic of Desire, guides the viewer down a year-long journey following two hosts – Shen Man and Big Li – as they battle it out with other hosts to win big at the annual YY awards. Moulding their unremarkable lives to entertain an audience in the tens of thousands, these two online personalities, along with countless others, take home monthly salaries reaching five, sometimes six, figures, despite both proclaiming they possess little in the name of talent; this is a world where thousands of viewers tune in to watch a baby eat breakfast, where men make unfunny self-deprecating jokes. As the narrative progresses from one two-week period of “dueling” for awards to another, the impact all this has on our two case studies is laid out for all to see in all its pain and torment.

Just like the lack of any personal connection between the hosts and their audience, an uneven mixture of the rich and the poor, Wu’s film does not so much focus to great lengths on how such a “career” affects those seeking popularity as it does on the rigid organisational structure which makes up the live-streaming platform YY. It is a symbiotic relationship between the host, the poorer audiences (diaosi) and the VIPs, those who lavish their favourite stars with vast sums of cash and lucrative gifts, with each factor playing influence on the other. It is a model which bears a striking resemblance to the trendsetting culture of capitalism in the West, where big money is vital to staying on top of the game. For those on YY, it is a cutthroat game where fame and fortune can arise just as quickly as it can be snatched from underneath. It does not care who you are: like a faceless corporation (the big bosses who fund the household names are never revealed to the public) numbers are everything. Quantity outweighs quality. For the poorer rung of society, such as Big Li fan Yong, whose life of migrant labour is barely enough to get by, his meagre contributions mean nothing in the grand scheme of either his idol or the platform. Though he has no hopes of Big Li responding to any of his comments, his entire existence revolves around supporting the one person who brings joy to his life. It may be a symbiotic relationship but it is certainly not reciprocal.

This is the sad reality which exists in Wu’s film. For all the hype and money celebrity brings, it brings about an even greater sense of dislocation and isolation. For Shen Man, the one-time nurse turned singing-sensation who feels solely financially responsible for her entire family – much to her chagrin – her very being is now under the constant scrutiny of a 24-hour audience in a realm which never sleeps. Surrounded by an otherworldly extravagance and fuelled by her ballooning self-aggrandisement, her lack of meaningful relationships is plagued by one sex scandal after another. As viewers helplessly watch this young girl transform before their eyes, the same occurs for the other big name in the film: the strain of success takes a terrible toll on Big Li’s family life, as he obsessively toils to reclaim the top spot currently held by someone younger than him. Much like the world of celeb gossip and the spectacle of showbiz in the West, the question always remains: is it all worth it?

There are many questions Wu’s film does not think to ask. In its attempts to cover as much as possible there is equally as much not covered; its attempts to focus on the macro are undermined by its skewed attempts at covering the micro. Its case studies do not exactly provide the most interesting of insights into this bleak world and almost come across as clichés. This being said, they are made all the more real by Wu’s magnificent editing and narrative creation. It may follow the tropes of cinematic entertainment yet it does so masterfully whilst engaging the viewer with an, albeit surface-level, observation of the all-too invasive elements of online celebrity. The portraits of its subjects are not attractive by any means: much like Dorian Gray’s portrait, they become uglier and even more desperate to keep the numbers rolling.

For all its hyperflatness and shallow subject matter, which has graced the screen as both fiction and non-fiction like a bad joke, People’s Republic of Desire is a superbly constructed piece of cinema. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in scope. Perhaps this is the point Wu is trying to illustrate: this cyber life lacks something. The cost of joining the elite seems too great – a sacrifice in the real to achieve greatness in the irreal – all for a couple of years in the limelight. There are many parallels to Kyoko Miyake’s documentary Tokyo Idols (2017) here, where popularity depends as much on age as it does anonymous adoration, where great pains are bled for a chance to achieve their own dreams. As far as People’s Republic of Desire is concerned, whose dreams are brought to life? In the grand scheme of things, who has the most to win?

People’s Republic of Desire was shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival.